In 2005 social psychologists Professor Elizabeth Stokoe and Professor Derek Edwards embarked on a three-year project looking at neighbour disputes. Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the study was part of the national £4 million Identities and Social Action programme and aimed to understand how social and personal identities are relevant to neighbour disputes.
The duo collected more than 120 hours of phone calls into mediation services, environmental health offices, and anti-social behaviour units, as well as police-witness interrogations in neighbour-relevant crimes.
“We were interested in the ways people explain their neighbour problems to these different organisations and their responses to them, as well as the ability to intervene from ‘let’s talk it through’ to ‘let’s arrest someone and put them in prison for it’,” explains Professor Stokoe.
The majority of calls recorded were into community mediation services, which are sometimes funded by local authorities or housing associations, but often charitable organisations, that aim to help people work through conflict situations. They record statistics on the causes of neighbour disputes including common complaints such as parking, noisy neighbours and boundary lines.
“One thing we looked at in a lot of detail was the way identity matters featured in neighbour disputes; complaints such as ‘I’ve got this neighbour with funny cooking smells’ which allude to identity matters that tend not to get reported in broader statistics.
“That is what I was initially feeding back to mediators; I wasn’t focused on their practice. But of course when you’re looking through hundreds and hundreds of these calls things start to emerge that you think the mediation service is going to find quite interesting and useful.”